How did NBC's 'Little Big Shots' shock the TV industry by scoring so many viewers?

Steve Harvey and spelling bee champ Akash Vukoti. MUST CREDIT: Danny Feld, NBC

Steve Harvey and spelling bee champ Akash Vukoti. MUST CREDIT: Danny Feld, NBC

By: Emily Yahr The Washington Post

On TV, Sunday nights often are blocked off for highbrow shows: "Game of Thrones," "Homeland," "The Walking Dead," "The Good Wife," "Downton Abbey" and many more. Ever since "The Sopranos" made a splash on Sundays, the time slot quickly became the sign of a prestige series.

So how, exactly, did NBC score ridiculously high ratings this past Sunday with "Little Big Shots," a kid talent show that features young prodigies showing off ventriloquist skills or doing Bruce Lee impersonations?

The episode - NBC's most-watched Sunday entertainment telecast in a decade - landed a whopping 15 million viewers, becoming the No. 1 broadcast show of the week in same-day viewership in total viewers. The rare victory shocked some in the industry, especially in today's brutally competitive TV space.

While NBC executives banked on the show doing well (it's hosted by Steve Harvey, who shares an executive producing credit with Ellen DeGeneres), the massive opening was unexpected - particularly for NBC, which struggles with programming on Sundays after "Sunday Night Football" wraps up.

"I'm always surprised when anything is a success these days, just because of the challenges of a very fragmented market - so it's great when anything works," said Paul Telegdy, the network's president of alternative and late-night programming. However, he added, "I wasn't really surprised that this was the show that worked on NBC."

For one thing, Telegdy said, "Little Big Shots" is perfectly on-brand, fitting into their talent show lineup with programs such as "The Voice" and "America's Got Talent," which appeal to a major swath of viewers in the heartland. Telegdy partially credits the success of the special debut preview episode, which aired after "The Voice" on the Tuesday before and attracted 12.8 million people, and went up to nearly 14.6 million with DVR viewing factored in.

He speculates that Sunday night is the perfect spot because not only is it the most-watched night of the week, it's also still the ideal time to air family-friendly shows - which used to be standard practice on broadcast TV. (Remember the ABC Sunday Movie of the Week?) Plus, the fraught political climate is only increasing the appetite for a light program while everyone gets ready for the start of another week.

"This is a huge country. I can tell you, in the NBC heartland ... with (parents) sitting on the couch saying, 'Hey kids, let's get ready for school next week,' no one's watching the zombie show or 'Game of Thrones,'" Telegdy said. "That's not family viewing."

"Some shows come along at the perfect time and perfect place," he added. "And 'Little Big Shots' is an example of that."